Class of ’78 | Start with the butter tart. Crisp and soft with a sweet, syrupy center, the flaky treat softens hearts as it glistens chins. You can find it in family-owned Toronto bakeries, chain-store pastry aisles, prairie cafés, and kitchens all across the vast land. The butter tart has an unshakable spot in the national palate and a modest renown outside Canada—an emblem for a country that is secure within itself but rarely takes the world stage.
To Sheldon Posen Gr’78, curator of Canadian folklife for the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, the pastry is “comfortable looking, and sweet within.” In his song “Butter Tarts,” he playfully suggests that they help carry the country through its rifts of language and politics.
They’re a good excuse to stay
intact, they may be all we’ve got
We’re Canadian as a dozen
Posen has spent his career investigating the food, songs, and stories at the heart of Canadian identity and history. During his time as the museum’s curator, he has highlighted the heroes and triumphs of Canada, as well as their impact on the national consciousness. One celebrated exhibition, “Rocket” Richard: The Legend—The Legacy, recalls the impact that this Montreal-born hockey star had on the identity and pride of French-speaking Canadians when they were still struggling for national recognition.
Posen is quick to caution that the country is no monolith; pockets of distinct—and sometimes conflicting—cultures exist within and between each region and town. The three founding nations of Canada—the Anglo-Canadians, French Canadians, and First Nation peoples—all have rich traditions, and are often at odds with one another.
Though Posen himself was born in Toronto in 1946, the traditions he inherited came from another tribe, and they awoke in him a curiosity and appreciation for culture. At school he studied half the day in Hebrew, learning stories of the Talmud and Torah, and at home he followed the Jewish dietary laws and celebrated the Sabbath on Friday evenings. His desire to keep the traditions, if not the rigor of observance, with which he was raised corresponds to his two passions: songs about folklore and the folklore of song.
He began by studying singing traditions at two summer camps in 1970 for his master’s degree in folklore at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, a preamble to a thicker, more vigorous look at song. From 1974 to 1978, he studied folklore at Penn under Henry Glassie Gr’69, focusing his dissertation on the songs of small logging towns in the Ottawa River Valley, where he lived and observed for a year and a half. His professors at Penn influenced his methods of interpretation in a way that went beyond his field research, he says, teaching him to pick apart the bits and pieces of an interaction for the information they contained about the participants and their culture.
The two scholars who most buoyed his theory and work were not folklorists but men whose research intersected with the ethos of that field. One was the late sociologist Erving Goffman, who transmitted his ability “to see the world all of a sudden in slow motion, in tiny, tiny increments, being able to recount those and analyze them and relate them to other things that he knew about,” in Posen’s words. The other was the late anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell, who “taught me to look sideways, instead of looking directly at something, to look at what was happening around it, before it, after it.”
When Posen went into the field to study songs, Birdwhistell told him, “If I were going into the field, I would look at practice,” which might be described as the human context.
“Whoa, did that ever change the way I was looking at it!” says Posen. “So when I did go out to the field … what I was looking at was not singing but how you got someone to sing. That was a total revelation, and something that nobody else had looked at before.”
In the small town of Chapeau on the Ottawa River’s Allumette Island, Posen looked straight on and sideways at old and young villagers, recording their ballads and the memories that accompanied them. Later, when he listened to the 125 tapes he had brought home to transcribe, one song in particular stood out: “The Chapeau Boys,” which recounts the daily lives of loggers in rural Quebec, enumerating the joys they share upon leaving the woods. His dissertation, For Singing and Dancing and All Sorts of Fun (Deneau, 1988), took its title from the song’s boastful third line, and explores the reasons behind its longevity when other high-spirited workers’ ditties have faded away. One reason it remains: “The Chapeau Boys” is sung together by the community.
“It was clearly a community song, sung as such within, and recognized as such from without,” he noted in his introduction. Instead of “the usual logging milieu or the traditional singer-and-his-song context,” the solitary singer and his rapt audience are replaced with a community singing together, a valued ideal in the village and other pockets of Canada.
Songs about folklore, on the other hand, represent Posen’s passionate contribution to ethnomusicology. Over the past few decades, he has released four solo albums in addition to the work of his vocal trio, Finest Kind. In the music world he is Shelley Posen, and his early inspiration came from the village tunes he’d learned in his studies. The Old Songs’ Home (2007), dedicated to an old friend from Chapeau, includes his 1996 song “No More Fish, No More Fishermen,” which warns of the end of the Newfoundland fishing industry. It quickly entered the Canadian folksong canon, and has been mistaken for a much older song.
On two of his albums, Posen reached back into his own memories and folkways, setting to music his experiences growing up Jewish in Toronto and navigating the rites of North American Jewry in an ethnically mixed but increasingly culturally homogenous nation. Manna (2003) is devoted to food, singing praises for latkes, beef tongue, hamentaschen, and rugelach. Menorah (2007) is a deeper look at the traditions he practiced as a child, and those he has passed on to his own children.
What else Posen will pass on remains to be seen; he retires this spring after the opening of his final exhibition, on Terry Fox’s 1980 Marathon of Hope. Fox, a young athlete who had already lost one leg to cancer, determined that he would run across Canada, covering the distance of a full marathon every day, in order to raise money for the disease. After 143 days and 3,339 miles, by which time the cancer had spread to his lungs, he was forced to stop running, but by then his courage and perseverance had galvanized the country.
“He fills all kinds of slots” for those who love him, Posen explains: “Everything from Christ dying on the cross to Saint George assaulting the dragon of cancer”—a true folk hero for a nation that celebrates its heroes’ fragility as well as their endurance.